General Bambang Darmono was in charge of military operations in Aceh from 2002 until a peace deal was reached in 2005. When martial law was declared in the semiautonomous province in May 2003, Darmono oversaw strict press controls placed on local and foreign journalists covering the conflict. When the tsunami struck Aceh in December 2004, Darmono led the militaryís humanitarian response. Here FRONTLINE/World reporter Orlando de Guzman asks the general about accusations of brutality by government forces under his watch.
Here Darmono talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Orlando de Guzman about his role as a military personnel and peacekeeper answering questions about brutality by government forces under his watch and the growing calls for justice from a conflict that took 15,000 lives.
Q: Orlando de Guzman: So when did you go to Aceh for the first time?
A: The first time I went to Aceh it was September 2002. To me, it was surprising. Why? Because I am a Christian. Aceh is predominantly Muslim. So it was a big challenge for me, because I didnít want my religion to become a hindrance. Being a Christian in a predominantly Muslim region, I wanted to be able to interact well with the Acehnese. But there were never any problems with religions.
Q: What do you think is the cause of the conflict in Aceh?
A: Iíve read that the cause is injustice -- I donít think itís that simple. In the beginning, Daud Beureueh [founder of the Free Aceh Movement] demanded to establish Islamic law in the region. So the Indonesian government granted them autonomy to make the region Islamic. Religion wasnít the only issue. It wasnít only about injustice. Itís more about how the Acehnese interacted with each other. In the past, the government mightíve committed things that were not so great in Aceh.
The reason why the founding fathers didnít choose a federal government was because of the kind of development we were doing at that time. When people saw progress in Jakarta, they thought that everything was brought to Jakarta, for the people in Jakarta. Thatís the rumor being spread around and drove [the conflict] to happen. Letís not talk about injustice before we talk about other issues. There are more issues involved.
Q: So what did you think when you first came to Aceh? What do you think of the Acehnese?
A: It didnít feel any different. It felt [like] any other area in Indonesia, and I felt like I could interact with everybody. I could even celebrate Christmas with other soldiers, with the Christian community. It wasnít a problem. So I didnít feel any different -- I felt like I was in Indonesia.
Q: So the Acehnese, specifically members of the GAM [Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh Movement] they donít want to be a part of Indonesia anymore?
A: These groups, who were fighting for Acehís independence, started spreading [the] rumors [I mentioned before]. When the Acehnese started to believe these rumors, of course, they felt justified. Itís OK, right? But I didnít feel that because I interacted with everyone there.
Q: Did you ever think that you would sign the peaceful agreement with your nemesis Irwandi Yusuf [present governor of Aceh Province]?
A: Not in the beginning, but I believe the problem in Aceh is very complex. It involved social, cultural, security, ethnic and other problems. Thatís why we had to approach it from the humanitarian point of view.
Q: If you look at the history of Aceh, the Indonesian government has always used the military approach.
A: A military approach could be seen as the governmentís conclusion. What I did was part of the military approach from the government, but as a commander, I didnít approach the issue using the military point of view. I was using the humanitarian approach. Theyíre completely different.
Itís true that most of the time the government uses a military solution. But as a soldier, I donít always use the military approach. Iíd rather solve problems using the humanitarian approach.
Q: So do you think the military emergency drill in Aceh was a part of the military approach?
A: Obviously, it was. Itís called the military emergency drill. If other people said that it was not a military approach, then theyíre wrong. We applied the military emergency drill when it was decided that we had to use the military approach, in order to handle the situation in Aceh. But my basic mission was to win the hearts and the minds of the people. If I approached people as a militant, I wouldnít gain anything from them.
Q: Is GAM still considered a threat to the Republic of Indonesia?
A: If we look at the past, we could say that GAM was still a threat to the Republic of Indonesia. The issue here is whether GAM still has the same voice after signing the Memorandum of Understanding. They had already agreed to work together with the Indonesian government as a part of the Indonesian territories. So from there, we may say the Acehnese have a desire to be a part of Indonesia.
Q: Does the military still have suspicions of what GAMís real intentions are [with regard to it signing the Memo of Understanding]?
A: Being suspicious is a normal thing -- in the military and also among the people. GAM is still suspicious toward the Indonesian Armed Forces and the police. Do we want to heighten those suspicions? Of course not. The leaders have to work hard to minimize the gap using the Memo of Understanding, the basic principles of which are DDR -- decommissioning, demobilization and reintegration. Weíre now in the integration stage. Is it easy for a community to integrate? Itís not. But it must be done, so everyone can realize that good things happen when thereís peace.
Q: But will the suspicion ruin the peace in Aceh?
A: If we donít manage it very well, if the acting governor, Irwandi [Yusuf] didnít try to decrease the gap, it could get worse. We donít want that gap to exist. We need to decrease it, and thatís Irwandiís job. Heís the governor; heís the highest authority in Aceh now.
Q: Governor Irwandi said that he had found out the military intelligence communityís plan to shake his administration. Is this true?
A: I have to say that itís not true. Irwandi wasnít supposed to make that statement. Why? Because it is the business of the armed forces. I am the one who was supposed to make that kind of statement.
Probably, you were shown a document. Well, that document was not something that had to be executed [on] during the operation. There was a suspicion that GAM would always want to be independent. If you were an Indonesian, and the Acehnese got what they wanted, wouldnít there be suspicion? I had to keep the balance. We had to play down the phenomenon.
Q: During the election in Aceh last year, did you know that Irwandi was going to win?
A: Since October 2005, I knew that any independent candidate would win the election.
Q: After the Tsunami, do you feel any differently about Aceh?
A: Three days after the tsunami, I was sent by the armed forces to Aceh, to lead the humanitarian relief effort. I led because I understood the situation very well. Aceh is where it is now is because I was the commander there. Everyone is aware of that fact. Change will always happen because life is about change. Life without change is not life, itís death.
Q: Can you tell me about these changes?
A: There used to be a conflict, and now thereís no conflict. Thatís a change. People can sit together now. They couldnít do that before.
Q: And youíre proud of your contributions?
A: I was appointed to lead the humanitarian relief in Aceh. Three months later, the emergency situation was under control. I was involved in the process until there was peace. How can I not be proud about it?
“When Irwandi made the statement in Bangkok that there are many problems, th[at] was not the right time. Why did he make this statement? Because he knew that everyone violated human rights laws -- it wasnít only the Indonesian Armed Forces, [but] the cops, the government, the GAMs.”
Q: There are humanity organizations in Aceh that want to form a committee to fight for reconciliation and what they consider truth because there have been many human rights violation in Aceh.
A: If we keep digging up the past, the problem in Aceh will never be resolved. When Irwandi made the statement in Bangkok that there are many problems, th[at] was not the right time. Why did he make this statement? Because he knew that everyone violated human rights laws -- it wasnít only the Indonesian Armed Forces, [but] the cops, the government, the GAMs.
In Central Aceh, peopleís heads were minced, chopped, buried everywhere. The GAM did that. Do we want to keep talking about that? If we do, we will always talk about violence and there will be no peace. But if we want to have peace, we have to bury everything. When I began the integration project, I put all these problems aside into an album. We have to look at the future.
“In Central Aceh, peopleís heads were minced, chopped, buried everywhere. The GAM did that. Do we want to keep talking about that? If we do, we will always talk about violence and there will be no peace.”
When theyíre put into an album, we have to remember all the pictures, so they wonít happen again in the future. But we have to put them in the album.
Q: What if we shut the album away?
A: Thatís OK. If you want to talk about human rights, I want to ask you, as a journalist, what about the Javanese? They were not allowed to live there [in Aceh]. Wasnít that a violation of human rights? There were hundreds of thousands of Javanese who got evicted from East Aceh and South Aceh, and they moved to Binjai. Iíve met with them. They were not allowed to stay and their houses were burned, werenít those human rights violation? Am I correct?
Q: Yes, thatís also a violation to the human rights, butÖ
A: Thatís why I said before that in the [2005 Peace] agreement, it stated and agreed that all violations before August 15th wouldnít be processed. When the Aceh Monitoring Mission arrived in Aceh, all the reports before the 15th were closed. I understand that you want to keep bringing this up, because youíre a journalist. You canít be reporting about peace, you have to talk about the conflict.
Q: This is not coming from me. There are many Acehnese who demand justice for all the violations committed by the armed forces.
A: Maybe you havenít been to the regions where the victimsí relatives live. You havenít met the Javanese. Youíve only met with a few Acehnese. I donít know how many days youíve spent in Aceh. How many people have you met? Iím not sure. Did you meet with the Javanese who lived there? No. So your report is not that accurate. If youíve met with the Javanese who escaped to Binjai, then your reports are accurate and balanced. If you only talk about the Acehnese, then youíre not being fair.
Q: We will also mention the Javanese who were evicted from AcehÖ
A: Thatís why I said, we didnít bring up this issue in Helsinki [during the final peace negotiations.] Why? Because if we kept bringing them up, they would never end.
Q: So we have to forget everything?
A: Yes, forget everything. Excuse me, I donít mean to say to forget about them, I mean to put them in an album. If we put them in the album, we can open the picture anytime we want. We can see the implementation on the field. But we canít forget about them. If we forgot them, one day, people would do the same thing. I donít want that to happen.
Q: To put them in an album equals to forgetting about them.
Q: To put it on ice?
A: Who said that? You were the one who said that. I didnít say that. When we put them in an album, we could take a look at them, any time we want. I look at my wedding albums all the time. I love looking at them. Are you married?
A: Have you ever opened your wedding albums?
Q: I have.
A: You open your wedding album sometimes, right?
Q: But thatís a wedding album, not an album of murders.
A: Well, theyíre the same thing. I said we put them in the album to be remembered by people, not to be forgotten. I donít want people to forget about these cases in Aceh because they are humanitarian cases.
Q: If we want to talk about albums, I also have an album with me.
A: OK, please.
Q: Do you still remember May 21, 2003?
Q: I was there. I arrived two hours after it happened. And we witnessed villagers lift the teenagersí bodies. The villagers said that the teenagers were lined up by the soldiers and shot to death, one by one. Is that true? Do you remember that?
A: I donít know this case specifically. But as far as I know, during the operation, I wouldnít allow that. Had I known about it, I wouldíve punished them. If you were in Aceh, you might remember that I opened a court for these kinds of cases.
Q: You still donít remember this case?
A: I didnít know and I didnít find out about them Ö I know about all the dead bodies here and there.
Q: This is your quote.
A: I canít read.
Q: You canít read?
A: I donít have my glasses with me.
Q: This is an article on the armed forcesí investigation report in Tempo magazine [a respected weekly newsmagazine in Indonesia. The story appeared two days after the massacre.]
A: Yes. Oh, this, this.
Q: And hereís your quote. You were there.
A: Yes. Now I remember the case. The case happened as was written here. I conducted the investigation and during the investigation, we had a journalist with us. I knew that the reports were correct because the journalist came with us. Theyíre not fabricated by the armed forces; they are facts and they are the truth. So when the journalist wanted to come, I said OK. Tempo ran the story based on their point of view. But the results of the investigation are facts.
Q: So you think that the seven kids were not lined up and shot?
A: No. There was no lining up, not at all. This happened in the morning. The armed forces never lined people up or killed them that way. Thatís not how it happened.
Q: But there are witnessesÖ
A: When we took them to the military command center, when there were a lot of journalists there, we told them that it was their opportunity to talk. Many strange things happened that people didnít know [about]; he [the witness] was forced to talk by GAM; thatís why he talked like that in front of many people. When [we] were talking honestly, they [the witness] didnít say "I donít know."
Q: So what do you think?
A: Why donít you read the article, Iíve already given my statement.
Q: Iíve read it and IÖ
A: So what do you think?
Q: And Iíve checked with the villagersÖ
A: Are you here for an interview or for an investigation? If youíre investigating me, I donít want to continue this interview. Iíve already given my explanation in the article.
Q: This is not an investigation.
A: I feel like youíre investigating me. I donít want it. Youíve asked me a question, Iíve already given you the answer; my answer is still the same as the one I gave when I was the commander. They were not fabricated. I answered to Tempo, but Tempo refused to answer me back. They didnít want to take part during the investigation. During the investigation, we asked journalists to come and join us. Thatís the report. I didnít hide anything. People can say different things after a while, right? When the Acehnese talked to you, they were frightened. The Acehnese were frightened to testify. They were afraid of GAMs, and they were afraid of the armed forces.
Q: Back to this case, according to this report, all that were shot were GAMís spies.
A: I want you to read my statement, but I wonít repeat myself. I will never repeat what I have said before, because I may have forgotten what I have said before. I have too many things on my plate. Thatís not my problem anymore, thatís the governmentís problem now.
Q: So how did the armed forces tell the difference between civilians and GAMs?
A: There was a way to do it. There was a way to do everything. Was it possible for the rebels to instantly get rid of their identities? Yes. In the day, he would carry a weapon, and at night, he would put the weapon away. He could say, ďIím a civilian.Ē That happened everywhere. The same thing happened with the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers.
Q: If that was the situation, everyone in Aceh was suspected Ö
A: Not necessarily. I never suspected an Acehnese. But if we knew they were hiding weaponsÖthey were armed, we had to be cautious. If you were a soldier, would you want to get shot at first by the rebels?
Q: What was the armed forces policy on torture?
A: As I mentioned before, not only on torture, the armed forces policy during the military operation was to do things according to the law. Thatís why I set up the military court to make sure that the operation [was] run as itís supposed to. Didnít you study this before? You didnít ask me the correct questions. I mentioned this before.
A: I mentioned before that the armed forces set up a court. What do you think that means? [Itís] because we didnít want any violations or torture to happen. Why would I set up a court if I had justified tortures? Your questions are very ignorant.
Q: Do you still want to continue this interview?
A: As long as youíre not trying to investigate me. How could I remember what I had said a long time ago. I donít think you remember what you did three years ago. I have too many things in my head. You should be grateful that I spare my time for you, right? Iím not trying to use the media to be famous.
Q: So do you think itís normal that the Acehnese peoples demand justice and want to form a commission to investigate abuse?
A: It's normal. Itís said in the Memorandum of Understanding [the peace agreement]. It's stated that there will be the formation of a commission for justice and reconciliation, and in the future, there will be a human rightsí court formed in Aceh. But what would be brought to the court were cases that took place after August 15, 2005.
Q: Will that work?
A: Irwandi holds the supreme power there not Bambang Darmono. Ask Irwandi, donít ask me.
Q: Do you want to be remembered as the general who fights for justice and peace not the one who violates the human rights law?
A: I donít want to be remembered as the one who fights for human rights nor the one who violates human rights laws, because Iíve never wanted to violate these laws. I want to do everything by the rules. I move within the rules of the game, within the rule of law. Human rights violation is not my problem; itís the governmentís. Iím not proud to be called the human rightsí hero. Thatís not my aspiration. I want to be known as the general who has accomplished his mission in Aceh well. Thatís all.
Q: If we all forget the tsunami, the victims, is there possibility of another war?
A: The Acehnese donít think like that anymore. The Acehnese are enjoying a peaceful life. The Acehnese donít want to take part in those kinds of things anymore. And I think the idea of being independent is not popular among the Acehnese. What they want is to have is a good life, to eat a lot, to dress well, to live well. Thatís what the Acehnese want.